There was a sell-out crowd at Moor Lane that included Sir Alex Ferguson and Denis Law but Salford City’s inaugural EFL Cup tie ended in defeat to Marcelo Bielsa’s impressive Leeds that should not be viewed with any shame.
Graham Alexander, City’s manager, will also hardly lose sleep over the reverse, given how Gary Neville, one of the Class of 92 co-owners, said beforehand that the chasing of a fifth promotion in six seasons is the club’s priority.
Leeds now meet Stoke in the next round of a competition they have won once – in 1968.
Alexander said he was proud of his team’s effort and he was correct to be so, given the quality of the opposition.
After the opening two league games in Salford’s history – a win and a loss – came this first meeting with Leeds, who arrived with a victory and draw from their two Championship fixtures. Alexander made four changes as he drafted in Jake Beesley, Oscar Threlkeld, Joey Jones and Danny Whitehead, while Bielsa stood down seven, retaining Kiko Casilla, Ben White, Mateusz Klich and Kalvin Phillips.
Each team operated a three-man defence, with Salford starting impressively in what was a warning to their visitors. From a corner on the right Richard Towell’s shot was headed clear by Jack Clarke.
Leeds featured the on-loan Helder Costa, making a first start, and striker Eddie Nketiah, also making his Leeds debut after joining on loan from Arsenal.
They were onlookers when Salford broke quickly and came close to taking the lead. Emmanuel Dieseruvwe flicked a header on to Towell and when he crossed in from the right the lively Beesley tested Casilla, who saved low down.
Leeds’s best chance of breaching Salford appeared via the probing of Phillips from his central area and out wide from Ezgjan Alioski, whose penchant for a whipped-in ball was a threat.
As half-time neared, though, Salford were matching the high intensity of Leeds, Lois Maynard proving a N’Golo Kanté-like presence in front of his defence, putting out fires as the team in grey started them.
All of this meant that Leeds were often reduced to taking aim from range as when Clarke tried his luck on the left. The shot dipped and moved but, as with his team, Chris Neal was up to the challenge.
By the time the break arrived Leeds had taken the lead after a move that exposed Salford at last. Nketiah raced in behind the defence and in classic poacher’s style Costa’s cross was fired home. Two years ago in this competition, Nketiah had scored with his first touch for Arsenal, when playing against Norwich.
“It’s good for my confidence to score in my first game but most important is the team,” the 20-year-old said. “I’m sure there will be more goals to come and assists for my team-mates.”
Salford’s response to the striker was to fashion a chance for Danny Whitehead, his shot being deflected for a corner.
If Alexander could be content so far he will have been less so to see the space allowed the ever-more menacing Nketiah, when an effort forced a corner. Costa took this from the right and Salford were sucker-punched. In raced Gaetano Berardi to the near post and he turned past Neal with ease. It was the captain’s second goal for Leeds in his 131st appearance.
If Berardi felt delight, when the camera cut to Alexander disappointment marked his features. This was the kind of goal managers detest conceding as patrolling each post is regulation stuff.
Whitehead, twice, informed the visitors that Salford were not giving up just yet. His long-range shots tested Casilla and the second claimed a corner. A short passage of sustained pressure followed but when Leeds broke out their next act was to kill the game.
Klich sprinted on to the ball inside Salford’s half and as Nketiah screamed to be played in Klich ignored him, looked up and swept the ball past Neal.
To their credit, Salford still took the contest to Leeds when possible and there were a few scares near Casilla’s goal, the substitute Adam Rooney missing marginally.